May 19, 2024

Design x Dragoons: Key Facet of a Historical Era

(ed note: forgot to hit ‘publish’ on this!)

This week’s question:
Wargames have been published for just about every historical era one can think of.  Pick an era, and tell us what you think is the most important consideration in design for a wargame of that period.  Are there “must haves” that you need to see in an ancients or Napoleonic game?  Are there any elements that truly distill the essence the an era?


Each week, our #DesignXDragoons panel will offer their thoughts on a talk about game design, game development, or gameplay.
You’ll see what they have to say, and get a chance to chime in yourself, either in the comments below, or in our forums

COL Eric Walters, USMC (R) ~ DoD Wargaming Practitioner

The best game I’ve ever come across regarding the Franco-Prussian War is Hermann Lutmann’s At Any Cost: Metz, 1870 (GMT, 2018). Not only does the hardware of the two belligerents get modeled well, but the pace of operations is exceptionally well-drawn and differentiated. I’d been a fan of his games on the Battle of Mars-La-Tour ever since his first title, Duel Of Eagles (White Dog Games, 2013) came out—to say nothing of the subsequent iterations in Duel of Eagles II and then Compass Games’s treatment in Position Magnifique: The Battle of Mars-La-Tour (2015) in Paper Wars Issue 81—because of this. But this latest title takes the same basic system and situation and wraps the rest of the Metz campaign around it, to include the battles of Gravelotte and St. Privat. I’ve got other games on these battles but it’s hard to go back to them. What makes Luttmann’s most recent treatment shine is that one can see how these battles happened, why they happened, and easily imagine the operational consequences of victory and defeat better than in other games. And yet, it’s not a walk in the park for the Prussian player, either. He’s got to really work for a win. It is possible for the French player to create a situation where his strengths are very much in play and can give the Prussian a run for his money. The game definitely caused me to do a lot more reading on the period and the war; I like to think I now have a far better appreciation for what happened and why.


Dr. Mike Benninghof, PhD ~ Founder/Owner & Designer, Avalanche Press

Whatever the era, the most important consideration is to place the action (the battle or campaign or war) within the social/historical context of the era. I want to feel that I’m directing a Roman army, not a pack of really slow panzers that bumble into each other on occasion. So it needs to reflect Roman goals, Roman attitudes, Roman methods.

Too many games judge “victory” by the standards of the early 21st Century West. That’s not a valid measure even in the early 21st Century.


Brian Train ~ Game Designer / Game Theorist

I’ll do and say the Completely Expected Thing of me, and choose “contemporary.” Must-haves that your game needs to include depend on the scale and situation you have chosen, but they really need to include things like the vast asymmetries in capablities between combatants most of the time; how those asymmetries can make one or both sides founder; the speed and use of communications and media; and the elusiveness of the very idea of “victory”. Of course there are also elements that are essential to any game in any period, but which usually arent’ done so well: respect for logistics, imperfect information, and respect for “soft factors”… these three are the most decisive elements in warfare, any time, and I am far from the first one to point out what a poor job the hobby usually does of treating them.


Anthony Gallela ~ Game Designer / Convention Founder

At the moment, I’m interested at the 100-year period in England after Rome left isles. I think the key to a good wargame in that period — for me — would be the competing interests of the peoples involved. Arms, armaments, tactical styles, known and suposed details of battles, etc.: all of that is important and would be missed if absent in such a game; but really, the conflicts being fueled — though mechanics and gameplay — by cultural and political drivers is what would get me — and keep me — playing the game.


Steve Overton ~ Game & Scenario Designer

Vietnam. Since it is all about small unit tactics leadership is the most important consideration. I don’t play ancients or Napoleonic games. Weapons and tactics define the essence of an era.


David Enteness ~ Designer/Owner, The Wargaming Company

I’ll challenge the question a bit: How many of these considerations are really era specific vs scope specific? Lots of people will say that a Napoleonic game must have “line, column, and square!” I’d challenge that by saying that a Napoleonic game in the average player’s mind is Austerlitz or Waterloo, not Eckau (points if you recognize the battle). Now, for those unfamiliar with the Battle of Eckau, it was ’not a large engagement’, and if you’re a player responsible for running one of the two Russian brigades present, it is not insane to think the game you’re playing may involve a level of detail where you make decisions about the tactical formations of the units within your brigade – though, historically, you likely wouldn’t be doing so very often, after all, your subordinate regimental and battalion commanders are doing some amount of that. And if you’re going to play Austerlitz – a battle with over a hundred tactical units per side, we’ve got two distinct questions pushing out at us: 1) Was an army commander of the Napoleonic era really micromanaging every unit under his command for the entire engagement? and 2) How long ya got?

All that is to say: When it is me, I tend to picture different periods with different scopes. For World War II, I picture the conflict either at the company and squad level, individual men trying to take buildings and hedgerows, or at a more operational level where large bodies of men, measured in at least divisions, are being coordinated over large swaths of land. With Napoleonics, I picture managing the large battles of the period and so the problems posed aren’t actually unique from the Seven Years War or the American Civil War, but the methods used do differ slightly because of organization differences driven by tactical and logistical differences.

So what captures the period? For me, totally a personal question. There are some really cool Napoleonic systems out there… that you can’t fight Austerlitz with, or Jena with, etc…, and they are still a lot of fun and cool designs, but generally not what I am looking for. But you also have to be careful: Just because something works for something, doesn’t mean it is a good tool for the job. You can use a level as a hammer if ya want to, but should you? I want a system that captures the problems of the period and makes me face them. If I’m playing WW2 skirmish, the hardest problem might be time. You’re a junior officer running a platoon, you’ve got to make snap decisions because you are commanding in real-time with no lag. That’s really difficult to capture on the game table. Conversely, you’re Napoleon – at Jena the man spends a good couple hours kicking a Prussian drum back and forth along a ridge because he’s waiting for the battle to develop to the next decision point… how do you make that fun for players? But that’s what I want, I want to feel like I have to be patient and predict the timing of when I need to commit the next element, or feel pressed to make decisions by instinct because my platoon is under sniper fire and can’t stay where they are.

If you’re going to develop a game for ancients… Ancient battles are all about deployment, so how do you make deployment the game? I once had a buddy describe to me the “true” ancients wargame. There’s a curtain dividing the table. Both sides deploy their troops. You drop the curtain, winner is declared. But how do you make that functional and interesting to players? It captures the concept of the problem, but doesn’t offer a solution to implementation… that’s the problem to solve.


Jim Webaneth ~ Game Designer / Publisher, Line of Departure

I’ll choose the classical era. The definitive system for Greece, Macedonia and Rome is the Great Battles of History (GMT), from Mark Herman and Richard Berg. It can require some work, more than perhaps the late, second designer liked to say, but it is the best. None combines considerations of weapons, armor, unit cohesion, and command and control for the ancient era more than this series, as I see it. The two best titles of the lot, at least in my view, are the first one, on Alexander the Great, and the Roman Republic one, SPQR.


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Brant G

Editor-in-chief at Armchair Dragoons

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